Less than a week after welcoming back nearly 2,000 students amid the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, Liberty University again finds itself in the middle of a controversy.
After the New York Times reported Sunday that multiple Liberty students had gotten sick after returning to campus, the Virginia university pushed back, labeling the report as “false.”
In an email to USA TODAY, Scott Lamb, the school’s senior vice president of communications, said there have been “no cases of any on-campus student testing positive for coronavirus,” adding that four students were told to self-isolate not because they had symptoms but because they had just returned from New York.
Additionally, Lamb said, one online student, who does not live on campus, “who never left Lynchburg has tested positive from local contacts in the community.”
“Contrary to the Times’ reporting, Liberty is not aware of any students in its residence halls testing positive for COVID-19 or, in fact, being tested at all, much less any residence hall students having sufficient symptoms of COVID-19 prompting the need to get tested based on current CDC guidelines,” Liberty said in a statement.
Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr., was more blunt on Twitter: “Prime example of why you never believe anything @nytimes says about @LibertyU. Complete liars.”
In its statement about The Times story, Liberty also wrote, “The University promptly provided the reporter detailed numbers on the student cases and requested corrections. No correction has been forthcoming so this statement is being issued.”
In defending his decision to reopen campus and order staff back to work last week, Falwell — an influential voice of the Christian right and a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump — said that because students were young, they weren’t vulnerable to contracting the virus. He caught criticism from both campus and the surrounding community.
Calum Best, a 21-year-old senior who was thrust into the spotlight after writing on Facebook that students should receive refunds from the university, told USA TODAY on Sunday night that he thinks Liberty has been “overplaying the effectiveness of their mitigation measures” and that university leadership, particularly Falwell, has “significantly downplayed the virus.”
“They’ve been really clever from a legal sense,” Best said. “They offered $1,000 rebates to students if they left by [Saturday]; that’s a way to incentivize students to leave without directly saying, ‘We made a bad decision, now you have to go home.’ Initially, they allowed students to make the choice about whether or not to come back and clarified they were neither encouraging or discouraging them one way or the other. They did that as a way to shield themselves legally.”
Best, who opted to return to campus instead of going home and potentially exposing his parents, said he’s seen “many students who don’t seem to care about social distancing” guidelines, despite warnings posted all over campus.
“It’s not the bulk,” Best said, “but it’s some, and that’s enough to make it unsafe for everybody.”
Falwell had re-opened campus despite Liberty moving to an online learning module after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 100 people in the state earlier in March.
Across America, hundreds of campuses have closed their doors, leaving students — especially international students — scrambling.
On Sunday afternoon, Liberty updated its website and said that as of midnight March 29, “any students who have not yet elected to check into campus residence halls for the first time since Spring Break, will be self-quarantined for two weeks at the annex in single rooms with meals and other essentials delivered.”
In its statement, Liberty said it wasn’t sure how many students would return to campus. It planned for “as many as 5,000” and had “approximately 1,900 in the residence halls at the start of the week, and is now down to about 1,045 with additional checkouts this week.”